It appears from comments made by the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, at a media briefing last week that the task team set up to investigate possible hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Karoo has a very narrow focus. It is evident that the task team includes officials from the Departments of Mineral Resources, Trade and Industry, and Science and Technology, but not from the Departments of Environmental Affairs and Water, nor from the National Planning Commission. Prior to the Minister’s public comments on the task team last week, the Democratic Alliance (DA) had submitted parliamentary questions to determine the composition and mandate of the task team. I will today write to the Minister of Mineral Resources expressing my concern that there are no members from the broader environmental sector on the task team, and to enquire exactly what the task team hopes to achieve in the limited study time. The task team will apparently report to the Minster at the end of July.
The DA had been calling for a moratorium on gas exploration applications since 1 February 2011. This call for a moratorium was made by numerous other organisations. In late April 2011 cabinet endorsed the Department of Mineral Resources’ motivation for a moratorium. The organisations that were calling for a moratorium can each articulate their own reasons for wanting a moratorium. In the case of the DA, our motivations were, among other things, that there was no government policy on fracking, that compliance and enforcement capabilities in the Department of Mineral Resources were virtually non-existent, while in the Department of Water it was very weak at best, and that the legal regime that governs gas explorations had thrown up a number of serious unintended consequences. Most notably, the size of the of proposed gas exploration application areas are massive, averaging 30 000 square kilometres per application, and the drill sites have not been identified at the application stage, thus affecting the value of properties in affected areas. Landowners who may never have drilling on their land could live in limbo for up to nine years wondering whether their land will be targeted while the gas exploration rights are in existence. Further, and perhaps one of the most compelling arguments that the DA has made, is that because of the size of the applications, there are serious consequences for spatial planning and the democratically approved integrated development plans of municipalities.
But why did the government call the moratorium? What does government see as the problem statement to which the task team needs to respond? The Department of Mineral Resources has never explained why it believes the moratorium was necessary, and hence it cannot articulate what the task team needs to do, or why certain officials are on the task team and not others.
In my letter to the Minister I will be stressing that there is a need for officials from the Departments of Environmental Affairs and Water to be on the task team. While the Department of Mineral Resources is responsible for approving the environmental management plans for gas exploration applications, it is the Department of Environmental Affairs that is the competent authority for the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of the actual drilling sites. Furthermore, it is the Department of Water that would be required to grant a water use licence to successful applicants that would govern the extraction of water from whatever source, and for the discharge of that water once used.
It is not evident without knowing why the moratorium exists what can happen in the short span of two months before the task team is due to report to the Minister. However, considering the widespread interest in fracking, both from proponents and opponents, the DA believes that the task team should also include representation from civil society, and further, the report should be made available for public scrutiny and public comment.
Regrettably, it appears that the Department of Mineral Resources has not thought through their intentions on the moratorium. At worst it could be considered a sham moratorium; a mechanism aimed at taking the heat off the Department and the Petroleum Agency South Africa during the local government election period. However, the moratorium period can be salvaged and the outcomes can be positive, if the Department of Mineral Resources gives the task team the right resources and credible mandate to deliver upon.